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2018 Montana Antelope Hunt AAR

Chris Upchurch

I tremendously enjoyed my hunting trip to Montana last year. Hanging out with Eric Pfleger and his family, slipping through the woods, and shooting a buck made for a fantastic experience. Even before I headed home, I had resolved to come back and do it again.

While I put in for another out of state Elk/Deer combo tag this year, I didn’t get drawn. Eric suggested that I put in for an antelope tag. Unlike the statewide big game combo tag, the lope tags are for particular hunting zones. Eric has an area in central Montana where he’s hunted several times and was planning to put in for again this year, so I put in for tags there. I got drawn, as did Eric's wife, Linda. Eric, however, did not (probably all those out of staters coming in and hunting in Montana). He did have second, special elk tag that was good for the area where we’d be hunting, so he and his young son went out there the week before to get camp set up and do a little elk hunting.

There’s a week between the end of the deer/elk archery season and the start of deer/elk firearm season that Eric likes to use to go out and hunt antelope. I arranged to fly out to Montana and hunt that week. The timing worked pretty well for me since it would be after I moved to a new apartment the first week of October. That did create some challenges as far as keeping track of all my gear during the move, however.

Gear

My primary rifle for this trip was my Ruger Precision Rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor. This is a pretty long, heavy gun, but according to Eric, antelope hunting out in the wide-open areas of central Montana is sort of sniper-ish anyway, so it seemed like it would suit. For field use, I’m very glad that I decided to replace the factory stock with a Magpul PRS stock, which has much less to catch on vegetation and such. This rifle has a Vortex 3-18x scope (also quite heavy), and I’m running an AAC 762-SDN6 suppressor.

My main load for this rifle uses Berger target bullets, which aren’t all that suitable for hunting. Instead, I worked up a load using Barnes LRX. This basically gives up some external ballistics (the ballistic coefficient isn’t as high) in return for better terminal ballistics. They’re very tough and are supposed to expand well.

Initially, I was only going to bring a 9mm Glock for “social purposes,” as Eric indicated that this area wasn’t really grizzly country. However, the day before I left Linda texted me with a story about a grizzly killing a calf just west of where we’d be hunting. I decided to throw a 10mm and some 220-grain hard cast ammo on board as well. For both pistols I brought along Safariland holsters that are dropped and offset to clear a pack belt. I had some CCW holsters as for use around camp too.

Knowing that the weather in Montana in October can be quite variable, I packed a couple pairs of long underwear, fleeces, gore-tex, and gaiters. I also brought many pairs of gloves, including a nice new pair of Outdoor Research Convoy waterproof insulated gloves that I hoped would help do a better job of keeping my fingers warm than the thin glove plus flip open mitten setup I’d used the previous year (though I brought that as well). I also brought along a pair of gardening gloves for crawling. My Eberlestock Halftrack pack would carry all this kit.

If this sounds like a rather lot of stuff to fly with, it is. I shipped Eric and Linda a box of gear ahead of time with my pack and some of the warm clothes. This both lessened the amount of stuff I had to fly with and got one box out of my hair during my move.

The rest of the stuff fit in a big rolling suitcase, a large rifle case, a carry-on duffel bag and a small backpack with some room to spare (and weight to spare for the checked bags). I was able to keep track of almost everything that needed to come on the trip during the move. The only things I couldn’t locate as I was packing were a set of add-on lenses for my iPhone camera.

Saturday

I loaded up my bags and headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Checking the guns went smoothly, and my flight to Denver got in early. I was able to get some lunch in Denver without hurrying too much. As it turns out I needn’t have hurried at all since the Denver to Missoula flight was delayed.

Linda picked me up from the Missoula airport after my delayed arrival. After hitting Costco for some last minute supplies, we headed out to central Montana. We didn’t see any antelope on the drive, which I gathered from Linda was unusual. I hoped this wasn’t a portent of how our hunt would go.

The drive was about 3 hours (Montana is a big state), so it was late by the time we got into camp. We saw some snow up on the north-facing hillsides as we went through the mountains and we got a couple of flurries. During our last fuel stop, the temperature had dropped considerably.

When we hit camp, Eric had some nice, hot soup ready for us. Camp was two big tents, both with vestibules. The main tent, where Eric and family slept, was a Cabela’s Big Horn 3 with a wood stove to keep everything toasty warm. No wood stove in my tent, but he had a long cot and a warm sleeping bag for me.

We all sat up talking in the heated tent for a bit before turning in. It was cold enough I ended up double bagging it using both the bag Eric provided and the one I brought. Combined with some fleece and merino wool long underwear that kept me warm enough, except for my toes. The foot of the bag was up against the wall of the tent, which I think contributed to the problem. The next day I shifted things around so my feet wouldn’t be right up against the tent fabric and that (combined with warmer temperatures) prevented any more issues.

Sunday

We all slept in a bit on Sunday morning. It was pretty brisk out at sunup, so waiting for it to warm up a bit was quite welcome. Eric took his bird hunting shotgun down to the river to see if he could flush any ducks, but Bridger (Eric's bird dog) flushed the only bird they saw too far away for him to take a shot.

We had a hearty breakfast (oatmeal and sausages) and started getting our gear together to go hunt antelope. I’d had to pull my pack apart and completely unload it to get it to fit in the shipping box, so I had some work to do to get ready.

It was late morning when we headed out. We drove just down the road to a Hutterite colony where Eric had permission to hunt on some of their land. The area was rolling terrain, where you could see for miles, but there might be a whole herd out of view in a draw a hundred yards away.

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Driving into the colony, we saw a small herd of antelope running off in the distance. Then further in we saw another small herd, much closer. We got geared up for a stalk. Since I figured we’d be crawling, I went light and didn’t bring my pack, just stuffing the essentials (water, rangefinder, binos, etc.) in my pockets. Eric took a large Maxpedition messenger-type bag. He and I started moving in towards where we’d seen the antelope.

With the very barren terrain (either hay stubble or short sage vegetation) the process actually reminded me of CQB, using the angles to your advantage to conceal yourself from the antelope as much as possible. This is where skill at reading micro-terrain really pays off.

As we were moving up on the herd we were working, we spotted a third group, further from the road. The terrain to move towards this new group was more favorable, so we crossed a barbed wire fence and worked our way up a drainage towards them. They moved off over a small rise, but as we got closer, we spotted them again.

Pretty soon we were crawling on hands and knees to avoid being spotted, then down to belly crawling to stay out of their line of sight. We found the lope bedded down at about 300 yards. There was one nice buck in the group, he was laying with his rear towards us. The wind was strong and gusty, making for difficult shooting. I waited for a lull, but a gust came up just as I pressed the shot. The whole herd sprang up and bounded off. No sight of any injury to the buck, so it was a clean miss.

After the lope crossed a distant ridgeline, Eric and I took a peek down in the depression where they’d been bedded down, then walked back to the truck.

From the truck, we used our binoculars to glass another herd far off but decided they were too distant. Instead, we drove to some nearby Block Management Areas. BMAs are private land where the landowner gives hunters permission to hunt on their property in return of a share of the money from hunting licenses (based on how many hunters sign in using a box at the entrance to their BMA). We drove up a road with several BMAs and pieces of state land along it to take a look.

There was a nice herd with a big fat doe, but it was just on the wrong side of the property line on land that wasn’t part of the BMA. Most of the BMAs and state land were much flatter than the terrain on the colony, making any stalking a more challenging proposition (Eric did a 500-yard stalk on one of these plots a few years ago).

We headed back to camp and finished off with some tasty chili and beer. While I was a bit frustrated with my miss, it was a good day of hunting.

Monday

After another nice warm breakfast of oatmeal, we loaded up the truck and headed down to the colony again. This time we spotted a small group of antelope not too far from the road just as we came in. The terrain wasn’t very conducive for stalking closer from this side, so we drove around to the other side of the ridge they were on, hoping to approach them from that side. We geared up and stalked over the ridge, only to find the lope had moved off.

Returning to the truck, we drove down the main dirt road in the colony, stopping periodically to glass the prairie for more lope. We saw a large herd back to the west. It was on a part of the colony that we weren’t allowed to hunt (they’d leased it out exclusively to an outfitter for his paying customers).

The members of the colony were rounding up cattle in the next field over and moving them into the area where we were hunting. All this activity seemed to have run off all the antelope, as we didn’t see any more on the land we were allowed to hunt.

Instead, we decided to drive up and take a look at some more Block Management Areas and state land further east. On the way, we drove into Harlowton (the nearest reasonably sized town). Eric hit the post office, and we stopped at a gas station where they also have an attached ranch supply type store with western wear, camping gear, guns, and other supplies (I get an odd sort of joy shopping at places that sell alcohol, tobacco, and firearms under one roof). We grabbed some lunch and a few supplies for camp before heading out.

We did a big loop up towards the Little Belt mountains, taking a look at half a dozen Block Management Areas and some parcels of state land. We didn’t see any antelope. Some of the BMAs near the Little Belts were getting into more rugged, heavily treed terrain that wasn’t great lope habitat but would be good prospects for elk if Eric came back a bit later in the season to fill his special elk tag.

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Heading back to the colony, we saw a small herd quite a ways from the road. We geared up and headed out to move up on them. As we got close, I spotted one of the does looking right at us over the top of a hill (I’ve got about a foot of height on Eric or Linda, so I often spotted lope first when we were on foot). We dropped down and crawled closer. Before we had a chance to shoot the herd ran off. I might have had a shot, but I couldn’t pick out any bucks in the herd, so I held my fire.

We watched them for a while as they moved off at what was, for them, a slow trot (a pace at which they’d probably outrun top athletes). Even after they slowed down to more of a saunter, they seemed to stay fairly mobile. Rather than putting on a ton of miles trying to get closer to moving antelope, we headed back to camp.

On the way into the campground Eric spotted three moose across the river, including a massive old bull with a huge rack. We pulled out the binoculars and watched them for a bit. In Montana, a moose tag is something you might put in for every year and only get after ten or twenty years. If Eric ever draws one, this might be a good region to come back to fill it.

We changed clothes and headed into White Sulphur Springs, the next town to the west. The eponymous springs have been turned into a motel with hot water pools. After a couple of days of chilly temperatures and vigorous physical activity (and no showers), it felt great to relax in the hot water. We spent over an hour soaking in the pools before heading over to a local eatery, Bar 47, for nachos, burgers, and beer.

It was very late by the time we got back to camp, so we turned in straight away.

Tuesday

After the late night last night, we slept in a bit (no bird hunting walk for Eric this morning). We had some breakfast and headed out to the colony, as usual. On the way in we saw a few pairs of antelope before coming on to a big herd fairly close in. A bit too close, as it turned out since they moved off after they saw the truck.

We drove up to a high point near the end of the road and watched them as they moved off. They eventually headed over a short rise into a depression where we couldn't see. However, after waiting for a while we didn’t see them emerge further away, or to the right or left, up or down the depression, so we figured they must still be in there. We decided to walk out and have a look.

Linda and I geared up and headed out first, with Eric and his son following a ways behind. It was a good, long walk out to the ridge they popped over, all the way out past the barbed wire fence Eric and I had crossed on Sunday.

I spotted a few members of the herd on the other side of the rise where they disappeared, confirming they were still there. We couldn’t see much (or shoot) from this distance, so we picked out a patch of tall grass about a hundred yards further forward as our observation point and got down on hands and knees to crawl closer. Eventually, we were belly crawling, but when we got up to the grass, we were able to get a look at some of the herd.

The grass was too high for me to get a shot from prone but too short for a taller position like sitting. Though I was afraid I might spook them, I crawled closer. This was all very slow sniper crawling, shoving the rifle forward with one hand, then pushing with your feet and sliding your belly along the ground with your arms to move forward six inches at a time. Several times I paused and raised my rifle to see if I could get a shot, but the grass was still too high.

Eventually, I was able to get a good enough view through my scope to take a shot. At this point, we were about 300 yards away. I picked out a good looking buck and Linda set up about 5 yards away to take a doe if she still had a shot after I shot the buck. The wind was strong but less gusty than Sunday. I held off for the wind and pressed the shot. Another miss.

The herd sprang up and ran. Linda didn’t have a shot at a doe either. Most of the herd headed off up the draw to our right. A few headed away from us, including a decent looking buck. He ran partway up the butte, stopping broadside to us about 500 yards away. I was hesitant after two misses, but Eric encouraged me to take the shot.

I held just behind the buck’s tail for windage and loosed another round. The buck dropped like a rock.

We watched the rest of the herd run off some more. I used my rangefinder to lase the spot where the buck dropped. It came out at 516 yards. Eric and his son headed back to the truck, while Linda and I walked out to my buck.

I’d hit it in the neck near the base of the head, accounting for how quickly it dropped. That also tells you how windy it was, since I’d held just behind the rear end and the bullet had drifted the entire length of the animal, probably more than 4 feet.

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We got some pictures of the buck, including me with the trophy, then set about the process of gutting it. With some help from Linda, I remembered enough from my experience gutting the deer I shot last year to get him opened up and get the guts out. Eric arrived with the truck just as we finished gutting. Once we had everything packed up, we drove back to the road.

On our way out of the colony, we came on a small group of lope that ran off when I hit the buck. Linda hopped out and took a shot from the hood of the truck, but her round impacted short.

We headed back to camp and got to work butchering the buck I shot. It was warm enough that it was important to get the animal broken down into quarters and deboned so it would cool off and not spoil. Eric had Linda and I do the work, starting with caping the animal (removing the hide). Last year I’d had my deer hide tanned. I liked how that came out (it’s currently sitting on my couch). Eric said that antelope fur tends to come off leaving a tanned hide very mangy looking, so I opted not to save it. This meant we could be a bit more aggressive getting it off, but it still took quite a while.

Eric was sure right about the hair coming off the hide, that stuff got everywhere while we were caping the animal. As we broke it down into quarters, we spent quite a bit of time trying to get it off, since you don’t want that on your steak or in your burger. We did as much as we could, but doing a really decent job would have to wait until we got home and could wash the meat off. Next, we deboned the quarters, since that would help pull the heat out of the meat. Finally, we cleaned the remaining meat off of the rib cage and spine, to be ground into antelope burger. Using a bow saw we took off the head for a European mount (bare skull with horns).

This process took the rest of the afternoon. While Linda and I were finishing up, Eric put together some tacos for a tasty dinner. We followed this with some celebratory liquor (Templeton Rye) and a game of Sneaky Snacky Squirrels.

Wednesday

We got going considerably earlier this morning than we had previous days. Heading out to the colony, we drove down to the end of the dirt road and spotted a big herd of antelope off near the base of the butte where I’d shot my buck. We glassed them for a bit and planned out a stalk.

As we drove back down the hill to where we’d planned to start our stalk we encountered four antelope, who ran off a ways. Linda and Eric jumped out to see if they could get a shot on them, but no joy. They trotted off and joined up with the others that we’d seen earlier.

Rather than riling them up further, we decided to leave them be for a bit and go check out the Block Management Area where we’d spotted the herd on the wrong side of the property line on Sunday. Today, however, we did not see any lope out there.

Instead, we headed out to a big ranch that allows hunting but requires you to sign-in in person. Unfortunately, we found the sign in place was closed on Wednesdays. Despite this, we drove through the ranch to take a look and to see if there were any antelope on some parcels of state land that were interspersed with the private property.

Down at the end of this road, the road climbs up into the foothills of the Little Belt Mountains and crosses into National Forest. There’s a campground out there that would be another good spot for Eric to try to fill his special elk tag later this year.

Hoping the big herd had settled down a bit, we headed back to the colony. Driving down the dirt road, we came across a small group at relatively close range. Linda bailed out and took a shot from the hood of the truck, but didn’t get a hit. The group ran off.

We drove out to the end of the dirt road without seeing any more antelope. After that last shot, Linda wanted to confirm zero on her rifle. Eric set up a target at 300 yards (her zero distance), and they did a test fire (it was within 2”).

Even though we couldn’t see any lope, we decided to walk out and take a look at the broad draw where the herd and been bedded down on Tuesday before I shot mine. The herd we saw this morning had been wandering out that way when we last saw them and the ones that Linda took a shot at had run off that direction too, so we figured they might still be there. Linda and I geared up and walked out there, while Eric stayed back at the truck with his son. Since I’d filled my tag, I didn’t bring my rifle, just a pistol, some binos, and a laser rangefinder.

The stalk was complete deja vu from the day before. We parked the truck in the same place, walked down the hill on pretty much the same route, crossed the fence in the same place, and spotted the first members of the herd from about the same spot.

Linda dumped her pack, and we crouched down out of their view and moved closer. As we closed in, we dropped down to hands and knees, then shifted to belly crawling as we closed in. I saw places where we’d scraped up the ground crawling in the day before, and I even ran across one of my spent shell casings that I hadn’t been able to recover the previous day. We were in exactly the same spot.

During the stalk in I was even more nervous than the last time we did this stalk. As much as I hadn’t wanted to blow my own shot at a lope, I really didn’t want to blow Linda’s stalk.

We got up to a point with a good view of part of the herd. I very carefully raised myself up clear of the grass so I could lase them with my rangefinder and got a range right at 300 yards. Linda told me which nice fat doe she was going to shoot at and I got on target with my binoculars to spot for her.

She took the shot and missed just a hair over the doe’s back. The herd got up and ran, but not nearly as far as they had the day before. One group sort of circled around and stopped about 300 yards from us. Linda picked out another big doe and took the shot. This time it dropped like a rock right there.

After about a minute the doe started whipping its head up and flailing around with its front legs, but it didn’t seem to be able to get up. Linda stayed on target while I went back and retrieved her pack. We closed in on the downed doe and saw it was still alive, though not kicking around as much as it had been earlier. Linda stepped up and shot it in the neck, which took care of things.

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After getting some photos, Linda gutted the doe. Once its guts were out, we rigged up some paracord to the legs to help us drag it. The mercy shot to the neck complicated things a bit since it had completely severed the spine, leaving he head loosely attached. Linda wasn’t going to have it mounted or anything, but we decided having it tear off as we were dragging would be a bit too macabre. I trussed it up with some paracord to help keep it off the ground, and since I’m taller than Linda, I carried the head end.

We dragged it about 500 yards to the fence, where Linda was able to get service on her cell phone and text Eric to drive down and pick us up. We loaded up the doe and headed back to camp.

It was after 3:00 at this point, and to speed things up, Eric went ahead and caped the lope. He was able to get it done in about 1/10th the time it took Linda and I the day before (and spread a lot less hair around to boot). I guess that’s the benefit of having done this hundreds of times rather than two.

Linda and I quartered the lope and got the bones out. While we were working on this, a friend of ours who goes by Colonel Plink on the Paragon Pride forum pulled in to camp. He and his girlfriend were out hunting antelope, and earlier Eric had texted them the location of our camp. They were planning on going into White Sulphur Springs to get some dinner and soak at the hot springs. We decided we would join them after we were done butchering the lope.

We got everything deboned. Rather than pick the ribcage clean like we did with my lope, we decided to break it down into racks and throw those in the cooler whole.

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On the drive into While Sulphur Springs we saw an enormous herd of 100 plus elk on a hillside outside of town. There were several big, impressive bulls and we got to see a couple of them lock antlers (though the rut was over by this point). They were quite vocal, calling to each other and making a lot of noise. It was awe-inspiring and majestic, a real treat.

In White Sulphur Springs we had dinner at the Stockman’s Bar, where we had some excellent burgers and good bread. Afterward, we headed over to the hot springs and met up with Colonel Plink. Tonight the warm pool was significantly warmer than it had been on our previous trip, nice and toasty. We spent about an hour there, soaking our aching muscles and enjoying some good conversation.

We headed back to camp and turned in.

Thursday

Since both Linda and I filled our tags, we decided to head back to Eric’s place where we could finish processing the antelope into steaks and maybe get out to hunt some birds or bear and, starting Saturday, deer and elk.

Tearing down camp was a bit of an operation. Eric and Linda had brought out plenty of kit and supplies, including food for the entire week. Getting it all back in the pickup and the suburban was a bit of a tight fit. By the time we tore down the tents, got everything packed up, and loaded it into the vehicles it was early afternoon. We headed out, making a late afternoon stop in Helena for a great dinner at the Brewhouse Pub & Grille.

President Trump held a rally in Missoula that day (we saw Air Force One sitting at the airport as we drove by) so there was a lot more traffic headed out of town than usual for a Wednesday night. We got to Eric’s place around 9 o’clock and only unloaded the most vital stuff, leaving the vast majority of gear until tomorrow.

Eric and Linda had just moved into this place in September, and there were still plenty of boxes waiting to be unpacked. We cleared some space amid Eric’s gun-related gear for an air mattress for me to sleep on. After a drink and some hanging out, we turned in for the night.

Friday

Friday morning I helped Eric unload gear from the vehicles. In the afternoon Linda and I turned the deboned quarters from our antelope into steaks and roasts while Eric continued the unloading process.

Through the use of copious amounts of water, we managed to wash off most of the hair that had troubled us out in camp. Linda did the trimming, and I sliced the trimmed meat into steaks. As a token of my gratitude after my hunt up in Montana last year I bought Eric and Linda a nice meat slicing knife and I got to use that to slice up the antelope. We got some really nice steaks out of them. Being smaller animals, many of the cuts were more like medallions than full-sized steaks, but I’m sure they’ll be equally tasty.

It took long enough to finish butchering the antelope quarters that we decided to eschew an evening hunt. Instead, Eric drove around showing me a bit of the local area, including one of the areas he planned to use for some of the Longrifle/Rural Scout Sniper class he’d be teaching in May.

Eric had some venison marinating all afternoon, and when we got back, he threw it on the grill. Along with some mashed potatoes this made for a delicious dinner.

Saturday

Saturday was opening day of rifle season for deer and elk. I was a bit leery to go into the woods on a day when the yahoos would be out in force, but Eric persuaded me that we could get far enough back in the woods that it wouldn’t be a problem. He and I got up at 5:30, grabbed some breakfast, and headed out around 6:20.

After about a 20 minute drive we were at a forest service gate closing off a side road up in the mountains. From there we stepped off and hiked in a couple of miles to a spot where the road made a sharp switchback. The tamarack were just turning gold and the views in the morning light were pretty fantastic.

We walked a bit beyond the switchback to a spot with some excellent views down into a bowl below. This would give some good shooting opportunities should an animal come along. It also provided a look at the area where Eric would be teaching days 3 and 4 of the Longrifle/Rural Scout Sniper class next May.

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We sat for over an hour as the sun came up high enough to shine on us. No deer, elk, or bear for Eric to shoot, but we had an enjoyable wait. Around 9:00 we grabbed our gear and headed back down the road. We heard other hunters (both vehicles and shots) but did not see anyone. Pretty good for opening day.

After we got back to the truck, we drove down to the area where Eric would be teaching the class, and he showed me a bit. The folks who own the property were there hunting, so I didn’t get the full tour, but it looks like it will be a great location.

Back at Eric’s place, we had some venison sausages for lunch. Afterward, we cleared moving boxes and other stuff out from around the woodstove so Eric could fire that up to heat the house. After they moved in it hadn’t been cold enough to require heat until we got back on Thursday night. In the intervening time, we’d been using an electric heater which wasn’t really adequate and was probably more expensive to run than the woodstove.

That afternoon we took a drive, including taking a look at two nearby reservoirs that provide some good waterfowl hunting. We swung a ways up to the north and stopped at a wildlife area where we saw a big pheasant fly off. Eric loves pheasant hunting, so he grabbed his shotgun, and he and I headed out to see if we could scare it back up. No joy.

Eric is still getting familiar with the area, and on the way back to his place we saw a couple of areas along the river that would be good spots for waterfowl hunting. While you can legally hunt up to the high water mark without landowner permission, Eric made note to ask about access.

Back at the house, we decided to take a more serious run at pheasant hunting up where we’d seen the bird. Eric and Linda got their shotguns, while their son and I were just along for the walk. This time we brought Bridger, Eric’s bird dog. Bridger is still pretty young and doesn’t have a lot of experience pheasant hunting.

Out at the wildlife area, we moved through some of the fields with Linda and me abreast of Eric and his son, about 75 yards distant. Since Bridger was pretty new at this, he didn’t quite know what to do, but by calling him back and forth, we got him zigzagging between us to help put up any birds. No luck finding any pheasants, but we had a good time.

Back at Eric’s house, we had a nice dinner of antelope (last year’s rather than the ones we’d just shot this week) and mashed potatoes. We enjoyed some good booze and generally relaxed for my last night in Montana.

Sunday

Rather than going out to hunt again, we slept in Sunday morning. I spent a bit of time packing up my gear. I managed to stuff enough gear in my rifle case, carry on, and the box I’d be mailing home that I managed to make enough space and weight for about 15 lbs of meat in my main suitcase. This was mostly steaks from the antelope I’d gotten, but Eric threw in a few other treats from his freezer as well.

We headed down to Missoula a bit early and grabbed a late breakfast from Wheat Montana, a local eatery. Since we had a bit of time to kill, we stopped off at a local outdoor store to browse a bit before heading to the airport. My flights back went smoothly. With a long layover in Denver, I got home about midnight.

Conclusions

This was a great trip. I had a fantastic time hunting antelope. It’s definitely a thinking man’s game that will exercise your sniper skills. It has a much more proactive vibe to it than hunting deer or elk, given that you usually spot the lope from far outside your engagement range and have to figure out how to stalk in close to them. The stalking is very challenging, as it’s easy to scare them into moving off. It’s all about reading terrain and figuring out how to get as close as possible, probably followed by some belly crawling to get in that last little bit. I found the whole process immensely enjoyable.

Gear

My rifle shot very well. It’s a bit heavy for carrying around, but until I build something lighter, this is a good choice for antelope. That said 18x is probably overkill for this sort of work. In fact, it probably hindered me a couple of times until I got in the habit of not cranking the magnification all the way up when I came off of 3x.

I may have to rethink the bipod a little bit. As I mentioned, when I was stalking in for my shot there were places where it wasn’t quite tall enough to see over the grass. I’ll have to consider whether I might want something a bit longer for this kind of hunting.

The 10mm Glock carried well, as usual. Switching back and forth between it in the field and the 9mm for going into town was a bit of a pain. I need to get some good, full house hollowpoint loads for it so I can just swap ammo.

I was pretty satisfied with my clothing. While I spent quite a bit of time wearing two layers of fleece, plus long underwear, my core was never cold, even sitting outside in freezing temps. The Convoy insulated gloves worked well. Between them and my thin glove liners, I was able to keep my hands reasonably warm, but I do think I want to get a pair of big fuzzy mittens that I can toss some chemical heaters into for situations where I need to warm up my hands but don’t have a woodstove-heated tent handy. I did sometimes wish they were a bit more dexterous, but overall they’re a good compromise between warmth and thickness. When it was warmer out, the Outdoor Research Overlord shooting gloves that I brought worked well enough for crawling that I never broke out the heavy leather gardening gloves.

One thing that was a bit more of a mixed bag was the pack. Nothing wrong with the Halftrack itself, I was just reluctant to carry a ruck on a stalk when I knew I’d probably be belly crawling by the end of it. In fact, while we were antelope hunting, I did all of my stalks just pocket carrying my most essential gear. This could be a bit awkward at times, and I had a water bottle and some other kit fall out at one point. I was never really caught short on gear, but there was definitely stuff I would have liked to have had just in case that I couldn’t fit into my pockets.

Eric had a big Maxpedition shoulder bag that he used on our stalks which worked much better when crawling than a pack would have. He could just drag it along beside him rather than having it up on his back. Something like that would be a better solution, but after developing some back pain when working out of a shoulder bag for a 2-day rifle class, I’m a bit reluctant to carry heavy loads asymmetrically like that. Antelope stalks probably aren’t long enough for it to be a big problem though.

If I do this again, I’m seriously considering a big fanny back or lumbar pack that could be converted to a shoulder bag. That would be big enough to carry a fair amount of kit, but small enough to easily drag beside you when crawling.

In contrast, when we went looking for deer and elk on Saturday, I took the Eberlestock and didn’t regret it at all. Different kind of hunting, different kind of gear.

Thanks

I need to thank Eric and his family for putting up with me for another hunting season. It was a great experience, and I enjoyed myself immensely. I will be going back to Montana, and more antelope hunting is definitely in my future.

Precision Long Range 1 with Match Grade Precision

Chris Upchurch

Back in May when I took the Precision Long Range 1 class, I wrote that “it would be a good class to get to know a new long range rifle.” When I got a new rifle, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I took the class a second time. Once again the class was taught by Matt Howard.

Gear

The new rifle is a Ruger Precision Rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor. There were several RPRs in the May LR1 class (mostly in 6.5, though there were also guns in .243 Remmington and 6.5x47mm Lapua). I was impressed by both the rifles and what the students were able to do with the 6.5mm cartridges.

While I own a .300 Win Mag, it’s set up as more of a hunting rifle, with a pencil barrel and conventional stock. I’ve taken it out to 1000 yards, but it’s clearly straining to deliver the required angular accuracy, even with handloads, and the pencil barrel limits it to short strings of fire. My only dedicated precision gun was the .223 AR that I brought to the previous class. Given the limitations of the cartridge that maxes out at about 800 yards. There are a multitude of opportunities to train at ranges that extend beyond 1000 yards in Kansas and nearby states, so I thought a gun that could accommodate that would be a worthwhile addition to my arsenal.

The one aspect of the RPR that I don’t like is the stock it comes with out of the box. Thankfully, you can easily replace it with any standard AR stock. I swapped out the buffer tube for a rifle length one and put on a Magpul PRS stock. The PRS is pretty heavy, but this is not a light rifle to start with, so the heavy stock balances pretty well.

I also took off the RPR’s muzzle brake and replaced it with an AAC Blackout flash hider to accommodate my 762-SDN-6 suppressor. A bit of picatinny rail on the bottom of the handguard to mount my Atlas bipod rounded out the modifications to the rifle.

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A quality optic plays a bigger role in long-range shooting than the rifle. When I was looking for new glass to put on top of the new rifle, I seriously considered the U.S. Optics B-25 (the much bigger brother of the B-10 that I brought to the previous LR1 class). I also considered the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27x and some of the Nightforce 5-25 optics. However, a friend offered me a sweet deal on a Razor HD Gen II 3-18x.

The 3-18 Razor is a bit of an odd duck. It’s the same size and almost the same weight (and price) as the 4.5-27x. You just get a bit more top end and a bit less low end. However, using the “1 power per hundred yards” rule of thumb, it still offers more than enough magnification to reach out beyond the supersonic range of the 6.5 Creedmoor. It probably wouldn’t have been the optic that I’d choose if I were paying full freight, but at the price my friend was willing to give me, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I kitted the Razor out with a Flatline Ops scope level, a killflash anti-reflection device, and AADmount flip-up lens caps. To attach it to the rifle, I used a Geissele mount.

All of my ammo for this class was handloaded. I’m running the Berger 130 grain AR Hybrid OTM bullets in Lapua brass using H4350 powder. I’ve been very impressed with this load both in terms of group size and standard deviation when I was experimenting with it. We’ll see how it does out at distance.

I came into this class with the expectation that the new rifle would help me in a couple of areas:

  • It would allow me to engage targets further than any of my existing rifles, out beyond 1000 yards.
  • It would make it easier to engage targets inside 1000 yards (by resisting the effects of wind better and being more forgiving of range estimation errors).
  • The optic would be truly optimized for long-range shooting (most of my existing magnified optics compromise their long-range capabilities to one degree or another so that they’re easier to use for quick snap shots at closer distances).

In addition to my rifle and optic, I brought my Leupold Mark 4 spotting scope with a Horus reticle.

While the point of this class was to wring out the RPR, I also brought my .223 DMR just in case my gun went down so I’d have a backup and be able to get something out of my time here.

Friday

I headed out from Wichita at about 4 pm. After a stop in Salina for dinner, I got to Spearpoint Ranch about 7:30. Unlike last class, I was the only person in the bunkhouse Friday night. After chatting with the owner a bit, I put in some work on this writeup and turned in early.

Saturday

I rolled out of bed early and made myself some oatmeal in the bunkhouse kitchen. Everyone rendezvoused for the class at 9am, and we headed up to the range.

Matt started things off with a medical brief, describing what to do if someone in the class was injured. He then moved on to talking about the course outline and what we would be covering. He rounded out the introductory material by going over the four rules of gun safety.

Everyone introduced themselves and talked a bit about their previous training experience. Matt talked a bit about his own background in the Army as an infantryman and sniper.

With the preliminaries out of the way, he talked about the basics of accurate shooting, dividing things up into the preparatory phase, before firing phase, the firing phase, and the after firing phase. For the preparatory phase, he placed quite a bit of emphasis on building a proper firing position. He’s a big fan of getting in line behind the gun and mounting it as close to the centerline of the body as possible. This helps ensure it recoils straight back, making it easier to spot your own shots and to take quick follow-up shots.

Once you’ve got your position built, he talked about the natural point of aim and making sure you’re not muscling the gun on target. When the time comes to press the shot, remember to “breathe, relax, aim, squeeze.” After the shot breaks, get back on target and spot your impact. Cycle the bolt without coming off the gun.

He spent a good bit of time talking about shooter-spotter communication. He talked about his preferred verbiage (“shooter up, spotter up, shooter ready, send it) and the responsibilities of the shooter and spotter. There was a big emphasis on teamwork. As part of that he highlighted the importance of the shooter calling if he’s made a bad shot, so the spotter doesn’t make a correction based on that.

Matt also covered how to use a dope book (every student got one as part of their packet). The spotter should document each shot and adjustment so the shooter can look back later and see what he did and what effect that had on target.

The wind had started blowing a bit by this point, so Matt did a short wind lecture. This is covered in much more depth in the LR2 class, but for this class, he talked about estimating wind speed based on vegetation movement and how variations in the terrain effects the way the wind moves over it. The shooting position is up on the crest of a hill, which drops down to a draw around 500 yards out. There’s a small ridge around 800 yards which drops into another draw at 1000 yards (there’s actually a gap cut through this ridge to provide visibility on the 900 and 1000 yard targets). Beyond 1000, the range climbs up a tall hillside to 1400 yards (there are even more distant targets off to the left, out to 2000 yards). These undulations have a significant effect on how the wind flows across the range.

We started out with some dry fire on the 100-yard paper targets. We used this to help get used to building our positions and managing the trigger press. Matt encouraged us to play around with the parallax adjustment on our optics, not just on the 100-yard targets, but swinging over to the more distant ones as well and seeing how the effect differed there.

Live fire started on those 100-yard paper targets, giving everyone a chance to fine-tune their zero. Matt uses 3/4” squares to zero on, but for what we’re doing 3/4”, even the center of a 3/4” target isn’t fine enough. He had us pick a corner of the 3/4 inch square and try to put the round directly on that corner. I made a couple of small adjustments to the zero on my rifle and called it good.

Another student was shooting some new factory ammo through his gun, so Matt loaned him a Magnetospeed chronograph to get a muzzle velocity.

Every hour throughout the day Matt pulled out his Kestrel wind meter and wrote the temperature and density altitude up on the board so we could adjust the data in our ballistic calculators.

We moved over to shooting the steel targets out at distance, starting at 300 yards. At these distances, it was pretty straightforward. We got hits and recorded our dope for 300, 400, 500, and 600 yards in fairly short order.

At this point lunch arrived, provided by Match Grade Precision (some lovely enchiladas and corn with brownies for dessert).

After lunch, we headed back out, shooting at 700 and 800. My shooting partner was running a rifle with just a bare crown, no muzzle device. He was having some trouble keeping it on target so he could call his own shots. He worked on his position a bit, getting more in-line with the gun and loading up the bipod to help keep the rifle from jumping off-target. Matt also gave him a chance to try a .308 with a brake on it to appreciate the difference that makes.

Moving on to 900 and 1000, things started getting more difficult. This was not just because of the greater distance. The wind was picking up and was very “switchy.” Overall it was blowing towards us, but rather than blowing straight in it was often blowing slightly left to right or right to left. Sometimes it was doing both at the same time! Right to left at the closer distances left to right further out. It was a challenge to figure out what sort of wind hold this all netted out to. It started taking several rounds to get on target at these distances.

We pushed out even further, to 1100 and 1200 yards. Here, in addition to the wind, I had to start playing around with my dialed elevation to get on target. I found I was needing a bit less elevation than the ballistic software predicted to get on target (probably an issue with my muzzle velocity).

At these distances and in these wind conditions I was spending 8-10 rounds for 1-2 hits. We called it a day.

I headed back to the bunkhouse and cleaned my rifle to prepare for the clean/cold bore exercise tomorrow. Once that was done, I headed into town for some pizza.

After dinner, I had a nice, relaxing evening in the bunkhouse and turned in early to rest up for tomorrow.

Sunday

We all met up at the range at 9 o’clock. Matt had us start with some dry work to get all the kinks out.

After everyone was warmed up, we got started on the cold bore/clean bore exercise. We shot on paper at 100 yards to see how much our zeroes had changed after we’d cleaned our rifles.

Next, it was on to the LR1 qualification. Each student would fire on targets at 400, 500, 600, 700, and 800 yards, three rounds per target. You could fire as many shots as you need at each distance to get things dialed in and get a feel for the wind before calling Matt over and shooting your rounds for score. I’d gone 12 for 15 on this exercise with my .223 the first time I took LR1, and my goal was to better that performance.

The wind was stronger and a lot more switchy and inconsistent than it was at the same time on Saturday. Despite this, the shooting was still pretty simple at 400 and 500, but as we got out to the further distances, it had a more significant effect. I spent a fair bit of time and ammo at each distance trying to get a feel for the wind, but it was changing so quickly I don’t know how much that helped. In the end, I was able to hit on all of my scored shots at each distance going 15 for 15. I’m pretty proud of that, but I know that good wind calls from my spotter and the wind resistant qualities of the 6.5 Creedmoor had a lot to do with it.

After finishing the qual, we picked up where we left off the day before, starting with the 1300 yard target. My hits on this steel represented a new personal record for me (my previous best was 1240 yards shooting Billy Stojack’s .338 Lapua at John Chambers’ last DMR class down in Coleman, Texas a couple of years ago).

At 1400 yards I actually managed a first round hit! Of course, then the wind picked up, and it took me several more rounds to get back on target a second time. Still felt pretty good though.

1400 yards is really pushing the maximum effective range of this rifle and round. Beyond that, this load is starting to slow down to transonic speeds, where increased aerodynamic forces mean the bullet does some weird stuff. However, it is possible to shoot out beyond the distance where the bullet goes subsonic, if much more difficult. While I didn’t have a lot of confidence, Matt persuaded me that I might as well try for a mile (1740 yards).

My dope called for 25.9 mils of elevation at one mile, but the Razor maxes out at 24.9 mils of adjustment. I dialed in 24 mils and held an additional 1.9 mils (the mil windage lines below the main crosshairs came in very handy for this). The mirage out at 1 mile was really blowing, and Matt initially called it as a 16 mph full value wind. When I held for this (about six mils of windage) my bullet impacted way off target. The mirage was deceiving, and Matt’s correction had me holding about half of what I’d held initially.

After a few shots, it became clear that I needed to hold some more elevation too. This isn’t too surprising. As a bullet decelerates through the sound barrier aerodynamic forces can cause it to wobble, which increases drag above the idealized model that ballistics software uses. I ended up holding another 1.5 mils of elevation beyond what my dope called for (27.4 mils total).

The 1-mile target has an impact detection system on it that lights up when the target is hit. When those red lights went off, it was a hell of a great feeling knowing that I’d managed a hit at a mile.

After everyone had a chance to try for the 1-mile target, we wrapped things up. Matt handed out the certificates, and everyone packed up to head home.

Conclusion

This was a great class. The material was just as good the second time around, and I picked up some things that I hadn’t gotten the first time through the class. It was a good opportunity to gather dope on my new rifle and to get to know the rifle and optic. All the hits I got during the qual really helped build my confidence in this gun. Getting a hit out at a mile was the icing on the cake.

With my handloads, the RPR is a real tack driver. If I do my part, it’s probably a half-MOA rifle. For the price, it exceeds my expectations by quite a bit. It’ll definitely do out to the maximum effective range of the 6.5 Creedmoor.

I’m liking the 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge quite a bit as well. Thus far most of my precision/long range shooting has been done with either a .223 or a .300 Win Mag. The 6.5mm sits nicely between these, offering a much longer reach and bucking the wind better without the disadvantages of the Win Mag in terms of recoil.

One thing I really noticed was the difference that this cartridge (and the rifle) made in my ability to spot my own hits. My .300 Win Mag is a fairly light hunting rifle. The recoil of the big magnum cartridge means you basically have to rebuild your position after each shot. There’s really no way to self-spot with it. On the flip side, while my DMR hardly moves at all spotting the .223 at any substantial distance (especially through a 10x scope) can be difficult. The RPR is heavy enough that the gun stays on target very well and the 6.5mm bullet is much easier to spot than the .223. I could actually see the dark spot appear on the target when the round impacted.

I’m pretty happy with the Vortex scope. It’s good glass the adjustments are precise and repeatable, and with the mount I have it in, there’s plenty of travel for anything in reasonable range of the rifle. I’d still like to get a bit more experience using the “Christmas tree” reticle (I was mostly dialing in this class).

I’d recommend Precision Long Range 1 to anyone looking to learn the fundamentals of long range shooting or to wring out a new rifle or optic.

Precision Long Range 2 with Match Grade Precision

Chris Upchurch

Last weekend I took the Precision Long Range 2 class from Match Grade Precision, taught by Matt Howard and Chris Long. Back in May, I took Precision Long Range 1 class; I was impressed enough with the class and the instructors that I immediately signed up for the follow-on course.

Unlike the LR1 class, which was up in northern Kansas, this class was at a range south of Wichita. Since it was about 45 minutes from my house, I could sleep in my own bed and drive down there for the class each day.

Gear

My primary rifle for this class was my .223 DMR. It’s a JP Rifles upper on a lower I put together myself. I’ve got a US Optics B-10 1.8-10x scope on it. I’m running an Atlas bipod and an AAC Mini4 suppressor. I’m running hand loaded ammo with Sierra Match King 77 grain bullets. I used this same gun at the LR1 class, and it ran well there.

The one change I made to this rifle since the previous class was to swap out the trigger. I took out the Rock River NM 2-stage trigger and replaced it with a JP Rifles Modular Trigger. It’s still a duty weight trigger, so it’s not super light, but it has a very crisp single stage trigger pull. This is the first time I’ve run a single stage trigger, and I’m still getting used to it, but I like it so far.

Unlike the LR1 class, which had steel out to a mile, the range at this class only goes out to about 900 yards. This meant that almost everything would be within reach of my .223, so I didn’t bring a heavier rifle to supplement the AR.

The rest of the class were running bolt guns, with both Ruger and Tikka rifles in represented. Mostly 6.5 Creedmoor, but one was chambered in 6.5x47mm Lapua.

I also brought out my Leupold Mark 4 spotting scope with the Horus mil-grid reticle.

Saturday

I loaded up the car and headed out, making it out to the range at 8:55. All of my fellow students in this course had also been in the LR1 class I took back in May. Some of the other students had arrived early to check their zeroes (I was reasonably confident in mine from LR1).

Matt started the class out with a brief overview of the material that we’d be covering. He made very clear that the two major emphasis areas for this class would be wind reading and ranging using the reticle in your optic. Matt followed this up with a quick medical brief and emphasized that he wanted our rifle’s bolts open and a chamber flag inserted whenever we weren’t on the gun. He talked a bit more about the course outline, then finished off the introductory briefing by going over the four rules of gun safety.

With that, we jumped right into the class material itself. Matt talked a bit about what we can look at to judge wind direction and velocity. He pointed out the motion of the tops of the trees, the movement of the grass downrange, flags back at the firing line, etc.

Chris talked a bit about wind direction. For shooting purposes, we’re only concerned about the lateral component of the wind. We can ignore any wind blowing towards us or away from us. At that time the wind was blowing fairly strongly from behind us, from about the 5 o’clock direction. This is a half-value wind (only half of the overall wind speed contributes to pushing the bullet off to the left). If it were coming from 4:30, about 70% of the wind speed would be pushing the bullet off course. At 4 o’clock, 90% of the wind is pushing the bullet sideways, and with a wind coming directly from the side (3:00) the full value of the wind would be pushing the bullet to the side. So after establishing your wind speed, the next step is to account for the direction and translate that into your wind value.

Of course, the real complication is that the wind speed is seldom the same everywhere along the bullet’s flight path. This is something we would have to deal with in spades today. The shooting lane was flanked on the right side by a line of tall, dense trees. These cause the wind to swirl and roll quite dramatically. They also meant that wind conditions on the right side of the range could be entirely different from wind conditions on the left. Matt mentioned that a good way to visualize this was to imagine a sheet of water flowing across the ground rather than air. Where would it flow? Where would it swirl and eddy?

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The primary shooting positions on this range were up on a big platform built about 12 feet off the ground. The added elevation gave us a good vantage point and helped us get a line of sight to all of the steel set out downrange. I toted my gear up there. In contrast to LR1 where we started with the closest targets we Matt had us start out at 500 yards, followed quickly by some shooting out at 835 yards (the furthest this range goes). I got a first round hit at 500 and was able to get on target after a few shots at 835 (which is pushing it for a .223).

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We had strong winds from about the 5:30, which you would think would lead to a small left to right value, but thanks to that line of trees wind conditions were much more confused. At closer distances, you were holding to the right, as you would expect, but further out you often actually had to hold left (depending on how strongly the wind was blowing and how it was being affected by the trees). We engaged some targets at various distances to see these effects.

After everyone had done a bit of shooting, we headed back down to the whiteboard where Matt and Chris talked us through determining range with a mil reticle (everyone in the class was running optics with reticles graduated in angular mils). To determine the range, take the size of the object in inches and multiply by 27.77, then divide by the apparent size of the target in mils in the reticle to get the distance in yards.

In addition to the ranging formulas, Matt also gave us the dimensions for most of the targets out on the range. For all of them he gave us height and width, and for some of the torso targets, he also gave us the height from the base of the target to the shoulder. Being able to measure multiple dimensions is essential both because you may not be able to see the whole target, and may only have one of these dimensions available to measure and because measuring range using both height and width allows you to cross check your answers.

Something Matt suggested that I hadn’t heard in previous classes was when you were recording the size of objects to go ahead and precalculate your constant for each dimension (size in inches times 27.77) so that will save you a step in the field.

We headed back upstairs and got to work ranging the targets. This is a known distance range, with targets every hundred yards from 200 to 800 (plus some more up on the berm at 835) so we already knew how far each target was. If the value you got from measuring the target in mils and calculating the range didn’t match the known distance, you knew you messed up somewhere.

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This was a self-paced, self-directed exercise, so I started with the 200-yard target and worked my way out. For each target I did the math, then shot the target (exercising my wind reading skills while I was at it). I’d done some mil ranging in the past, so this was mostly a matter of knocking the rust off. Some of the students had more of a challenge, but everyone was doing reasonably well after an hour or so.

One thing I did struggle a bit with is the relatively chunky reticle in my rifle scope. The relatively thick stadia lines made getting the base or side of the target exactly matched up with the center of the line a bit difficult. Rather than ranging using my central crosshair I ended up using the first hash mark because that way I could line it up halfway over the target and make sure I was bisecting the line with the base of the target.

The other challenge I had was the fact that the smallest increment this scope has is 0.5 mils. I could guesstimate down to about a tenth of a mil, which seems pretty precise, but when you get out to long range a 0.1 mil can make a pretty big difference. For instance, for one of the more distant targets, using my optic I had a hard time deciding whether it was 1 mil high (which would put it at 833 yards) or 1.1 mils (757 yards). Since this was a known distance range, it was evident that neither of these was right on the money (it was an 800-yard target). However, the difference between 757 and 833 yards is significant. I’d have to dial in 2 more mils of drop to shoot at 833 than I would at 757, which is considerably more than the height of the target. Making a ranging mistake like this would probably mean a miss.

At this point, I broke out my spotting scope. Not only is it 40 power rather than the 10 power of my rifle scope, it also has a grid of mil markers 0.2 mils apart. With this, I found I was able to measure much more precisely, down to 0.05 mil or better.

Wind conditions were also challenging, and not just the shooting. The wind was strong enough up on the platform that it was blowing around my spotting scope, and the tripod mounted binoculars. I ended up lowering my tripod down to it's lowest height where it was much steadier and doing my ranging from prone.

Lunch arrived, provided by Match Grade Precision. Tacos, corn on the cob, rice, and some excellent brownies. They definitely feed you well in these classes.

After lunch, we headed back up to do some more mil ranging and shooting. Before too long the clouds that had been building to the south of us all day finally pushed far enough north to drop some rain on us. We grabbed our gear and moved down to the shooting benches underneath the platform. This introduced some new challenges: even at bench height, vegetation and micro terrain partially masked some of the farther targets (many would have been completely invisible in prone). This meant you sometimes only had the width to measure for ranging and only part of the target available to aim at.

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I figured that the mil ranging was a skill that I needed more practice on than shooting, so I didn’t put a whole lot of rounds downrange for the first part of the afternoon. Instead, I ranged every available target, doing both height and width if possible. Using the reticle in the spotting scope, I found that when I could measure both the height and width of the targets, they usually agreed with each other within about 5-10 yards, and were often within 10 yards of the known distance.

One target both the student next to me and I had trouble with was a diamond target out at 800 yards. Even measuring very carefully we were both getting ranges around 750. It was hard to judge precisely where the tips of the diamond ended even with a 40 power spotting scope. Eventually, I had the bright idea to roll my spotting scope over at a 45-degree angle and measure from one side to the other rather than tip to tip (treating it as if it were a square rather than a diamond). This produced a much more accurate value. A good lesson to measure between clearly defined points if you can.

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Having ranged everything I could see that we knew the dimensions of, I switched back to my rifle to do some more shooting. While doing this, I ran into another issue with micro terrain. I was shooting at a target about 500 yards out. Based on the way the grass I could see in the foreground was blowing I called a moderate right to left wind and held on the right edge of the target.

Chris was spotting for me, and when I sent my shot, he said I was off the right side of the target and called I correction of 1 mil left. I made the correction and got the hit. I was a bit confused. It was evident from where my first round went that I’d completely misread the wind. I thought it was blowing right to left, yet my round ended up to the right of my aiming point. I got up and took a peek through the tripod mounted binoculars the Chris was using. Through those, I could see that the grass closer to the target was blowing the opposite direction, indicating a left to right wind. That was what blew my first shot off targets. The micro terrain meant that a two foot difference in elevation revealed an entirely different picture of what the wind was doing.

After everyone had their fill of ranging and shooting, we packed up and headed out.

Sunday

I rolled up to the range about 8:45. One of the other students was zeroing a new scope (after class the previous day he swapped his Vortex Viper PST for a newly bought Razor HD Gen II). Once he finished, we moved over to the unknown distance range.

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Once the last student arrived, we got started with a big unknown distance shooting exercise. This exercise is the big centerpiece of the class. Matt gave us dimensions for five targets at unknown distances, and we had 30 minutes to range the targets using the reticles in our optics. After ranging all the targets, we each engaged them in turn, with only three rounds per target. No laser rangefinders, Kestrels, or ballistic software allowed (Matt had suggested that we work up written dope sheets the previous afternoon).

I started by multiplying all of the target dimensions by 27.77 to get a constant for each of them. That way I had one step out of the way and only needed to divide this by the target dimension in mils to get the range.

Based on my experience on Day 1, I did all my mil ranging for the exercise using the finer reticle and higher magnification of my spotting scope. For four of the five targets, I was able to range them using both their height and width. This gave me two different dimensions to cross check against each other. For the closest target, the ranges I got measuring the height and width were within three yards of each other. On the most distant target, they were within 12 yards. However, for two of the targets, the ranges measured by height were 75-80 yards closer than the distance measured by width. Based on my experience the previous day, I trusted the distance measured by height a bit more than the one measured by width, so that’s what I went with.

Tall grass obscured the lower part of one target, making it impossible to measure its height. Even if I ran my sitting height tripod up to its maximum height, it wasn’t tall enough to see the base of the target (I tried balancing my tripod on top of a stump, but couldn’t get it steady enough to range with). So I could only do my ranging based on the target’s width. This was the target I was most uncertain about the range on. It was also the one where there was the most variation among the different students (despite this being set up as a competition, we all cooperated on the ranging, talking about what mil dimensions we measured the targets at and what distances we calculated).

Having used all of our available 30 minutes, we loaded up our rifles and each student engaged every target in turn. You had three rounds, so if you missed with the first one and could either self-spot or one of the other students spotted for you, you could make a correction and get your second (or third) round on target.

We did quite a bit of missing as it turns out. By the time we got to shooting the wind was blowing fairly strongly, about 15-20 mph at the firing line from about 5 o’clock. However, a row of trees off to the right perpendicular to our line of fire partially screened the targets from the wind. This meant that the first part of the bullet’s flight path was affected strongly by the wind, the latter part of its flight much less so. That said, the winds were more consistent across the course than on the range where we'd shot the previous day. The row of trees was far enough off that the winds weren’t nearly as switchy and confusing as they’d been the day before.

Some of the more distant targets were very hard to spot your shots on as well; especially one that was placed out in the middle of some tall grass with no berm behind it. The grass just absorbed any splash, making it very difficult to figure out where your shot went.

I went 2 for 3 on the closest target. The second target was the partially obscured one that I’d had trouble ranging. My first shot was short, so I added some elevation. The second shot was short as well so I held another mil of elevation before firing the third shot and got the hit. As I was engaging the third target, the winds picked up a bit, and I didn’t end up with any hits. The fourth target was the one in the middle of the field which was very difficult to spot your shots on. I took my best guess for the wind, fired, and missed. With no feedback about where I missed I swung one target width to the left and fired (no joy), then tried one target width to the right and managed to get a hit on the right edge of the plate. The last target was out beyond 900 yards, which is really beyond the effective range of the .223 (and it’s also almost impossible to spot splashes from these little bullets out at that distance). I took my three shots but wasn’t rewarded with any hits. Despite only getting four hits out of fifteen tries, I tied for first place.

After we shot each target, Matt gave us the actual range. On the troublesome one where I could only measure the width, I was off by over 75 yards. For all of the others, I was pretty close, with 35 yards of the correct distance. So ranging really wasn’t the problem. Like I said, the wind conditions were pretty challenging.

It is worth noting that after getting my hit on the second (poorly ranged) target I was able to work backward from the amount I held and come out right on the money with the correct distance. This gives me confidence in the accuracy of my scope's reticle and adjustments.

After we finished the exercise, we had the chance for some more free shooting using the array of unknown distance targets on this range. I worked to re-engage some of the targets that I’d missed, especially one where I’d had the wrong range. With a little bit of work (and some good spotting from Matt and Chris) I was able to get on steel on everything except the most distant target. I also did some shooting at some of the other targets out on the range as well (there were another dozen or so that we hadn’t even used for the exercise).

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During a break, Matt talked about using a crosshair reticle as a “poor man’s Horus.” Basically, you dial your dope for moderately long distance (he suggested 500 yards). At closer distances, you hold under while at longer distances you go back to holding over. Essentially you subtract the 500-yard dope that you dialed from your actual dope at each distance, treating any negative numbers as hold-under rather than holdover. Obviously, this requires a scope with mil markings on the part of the crosshair above the center; you can’t do it with a T-shaped reticle.

I played around with this some after lunch (again, a nice meal furnished by Match Grade precision: today sandwiches, pasta salad, potato salad, and some really excellent apple crisp). My optic has 4 mils of has marks above the crosshair, and my 500-yard dope was 3.5 mils, so that part of it worked well. The one issue that cropped up was that it the has marks are at 0.5 mil increments and all the targets on this range closer than 500 yards were all quite small (either reduced size torsos or small plates). The half-mil increments were a bit coarse for such small targets. This would have worked a bit better for quick shooting at full sized torsos (or with a scope with 0.2 mil gradations).

Despite the dearth of closer torso targets, the range did have some neat stuff to shoot at. They even had a pickup truck out at about 400 yards with swinging steel targets inside the truck. I managed to get hits on a head-sized steel target in the back of the crew cab (but I definitely put some additional holes in the truck body getting on target).

After everyone had their fill of shooting, Matt handed out the certificates, and we broke for the day.

Conclusions

For me, the process of getting comfortable with mil ranging has been very gradual. While I was first introduced to it back in 2011, I didn’t really feel that I truly had a grasp on it until Eric Pfleger’s Longrifle class in 2015. Not only did this class knock the rust off of my mil reading skills, the work we did on Saturday and especially the unknown distance exercise on Sunday really gave me confidence that I can make this work in a field situation.

In contrast to my newfound confidence in my mil ranging skills, this class reinforced that I’ve got a long way to go when it comes to wind reading. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a tremendous amount. However, reading wind is more of an art than a science, and acquiring a good grasp on that art will require a lot more practice. As my late friend John Chambers was fond of saying, “The best way to learn to shoot in the wind is to shoot in the wind.”

This class offered some challenging wind conditions, with a good deal of diversity in exactly how the wind was affecting your bullets between the two days. That said, the wind direction and the direction of shooting remained very consistent over the two days. The variation was mostly due to the vegetation and difference in wind speed over the course of the class.

On that score, one thing Matt mentioned that caught my interest was a description of the ranges available up at Ringneck Ranch in northern Kansas. There they have a set of three different ranges covering about 270-degree circle. You can switch relatively quickly between shooting north, east, and south, getting big variations in wind direction relative to your shooting. He said he was trying to schedule this class at that facility sometime next year. That would definitely make it worthwhile to take the class again.

My rifle ran well. Aside from the stuff out at 900+ yards that was really beyond the .223’s effective range, I was generally able to get solid, repeatable hits. However, I definitely felt the wind more than the other students shooting 6.5mm rifles. Even running the heavy for the caliber 77 grainers the strong winds really tossed the little bullets around.

The JP modular trigger was quite nice. No detectable creep, just gradually increase the pressure and, suddenly, the trigger breaks and the gun goes off. I may have to buy another one of these and see how I like it in one of my fighting rifles.

The US Optics B-10 scope worked well. One of the reasons I switched to this optic from the Leupold Mark 6 1-6x that I had on this rifle was to get an optic better suited to precision shooting. I think the B-10 fits the bill. The GAP reticle is finer than the Leupold, while still being thick enough to work at 1.8x magnification. The crosshair was fine enough to effectively engage everything I shot at during this course (which included smaller targets out to about 500 and full-size torso targets out to 900).

That said, the GAP reticle isn’t the best suited for ranging targets. While I was able to make it work reasonably well, the finer 0.2 mil grid in my spotting scope was definitely better in that role. The B-10 is also really set up to dial elevation and hold for wind. I was able to tack on a mil and a half to what I’d dialed when shooting at the target that was further away than I’d thought during the UD exercise, but when you get much further from the horizontal crosshair than that it becomes a bit of a guessing game. Overall, I’m happy with this optic. It fits the intended role of this rifle well.

While all but the furthest targets on this range were within the effective reach of my .223 (at least when I read the wind correctly), I was still a bit jealous of the reach and wind-bucking abilities of the other students’ 6.5s. My task for the next few weeks is to get some ammo loaded up for my new Ruger Precision Rifle in 6.5mm.

I’d recommend Precision Long Range 2 to anyone who wants to get better at reading the wind and ranging targets using a mil reticle. All of the Match Grade Precision classes I’ve taken so far have been very good. Good enough that I’ll be going back to Spearpoint Ranch in September and taking their LR1 class a second time to get to know my new Ruger.